Liam Wade, a songwriter and guitarist with a long history of working within the music industry, is recounting his tales of life on the road, translating his memories into a fictionalised format as part of his novella, the ‘Courtney’ stories. Here, as his first entry, Wade details ‘The Ghost of a Troubadour‘…
I left my Hackney Road apartment on a grizzly November morning, where I was living in a crusty old council flat that I shared with two friends. My flatmate’s father owned the stinking place and was charging us too much to live there. Rainwater would seep through the ceiling and down the walls, staining the floral wallpaper with brown rings; the blue carpet was frayed and patchy from years of shuffling feet wearing it down. I pulled the door shut behind me and stepped out into a cold and grey London, cursing under my breath the bitter wind that whipped against my face.
The sky was drizzling, as usual, the kind of rain that permeates every layer of clothing, leaving you damp and itchy. I walked down the concrete steps of the building, my Converses squeaking against the wet floor with each step, and I dipped under the stairwell to stay dry. As I waited for my taxi, I felt a wry smile stretch across my face; I was on my way to Heathrow, where I’d board a plane to sunny LA and leave my life in London behind. My flight was two days before everyone else’s. There was no good reason to get to there early, only that I was an eager young musician playing guitar for a cultural superstar, a job I‘d dreamed of since I was 13-years-old, propped against my bed, picking away on my electric guitar, destroying Green Day and Nirvana songs, desperate to master the craft of punk rock. I was ready to return to my beloved LA.
Earlier in the year, I’d spent the summer rehearsing in Los Angeles. It was my first trip out West, and it had a profound effect on me. Every day the sun beamed. Palm trees lined the boulevards, swinging in the breeze, their floppy heads nodding to the hum of the city. It was a dream for a boy from a small town in the north of England. The first time I went to Santa Monica beachfront, it blew my mind! There was a reggae guitarist playing Britney Spears songs. He’d play the bass notes with his thumb and jam the melody on top. After a couple of songs, he’d stop to smoke his pipe and take a swig from a can in a brown paper bag. A man in silver underpants roller-skated past me with a python around his neck. Nobody around me paid any notice, but I had a hard time assessing this wicked and kinky universe. ‘The City of Flowers and Sunshine’ was novel and exciting — and now it was about to become my new home.
The mid-morning flight from Heathrow landed me in California at 2pm. For a 22-year-old, I thought I was very sophisticated. I splashed out for Premium Economy and paid the extra $125 for a marginally bigger seat and a cheap glass of champagne. It was a slow flight. Each minute that passed seemed like an hour. I’d check the flight path on my screen, at regular intervals, only to see that ten minutes had passed since the last time I’d checked.
When I arrived at LAX, I was groggy and a little hungover. The salty, bleached cubes of chicken pasta and champagne churned in my stomach. I passed through the airport to the customs line and waited my turn. Then, the TSA officer began his assault. A bald, evil-eyed-fucker, an ex-cop with a grudge. “Why are you here Sir? Business or pleasure? Are you here to overthrow the United States Government?” After the interrogation, he delivered his verdict with the thud of his stamp upon my passport. Then he raised his hand and waved me away, ushering in the next poor sucker. I walked through the exit and let the warm, dry air welcome me back. I was free to live in California and resume my position as guitarist in Courtney Love’s band.
Courtney’s driver picked me up at the arrival gate in her black Mercedes. He loaded my bags into the trunk, then held the door while I slipped into the sleek leather interior. It smelled like sandalwood and had bottles of Fiji water in the holsters. I felt like a rockstar. Before this, I’d only ever been picked up at the airport by my grandad in his Hyundai. I was moving up in the world. On the drive, the city seemed different. The sky was grey with clouds, and the hot and dry Santa Ana Winds were rolling in from the hills, showing me a darker side to LA’s cheerful nature. We turned off Sunset Boulevard and up the hill towards La Collina Drive, Beverly Hills, 90210.
All the homes were sprawling Spanish colonial, an upper-class street for LA elites. Fancy sports cars and SUVs packed the gated courtyards and driveways. La Collina was a step back from the strip. The lights and allure of seedy Hollywood were close, but not too close. We passed through the heavy-duty gates and parked in front of the large double door, the property’s looming entrance. It was dark oak and a foot deep, strong enough to hold off a small army. The driver helped me unload my luggage and showed me to a big bedroom off to the left of the main entrance. It had a queen-size bed and a large flatscreen TV hung on the wall. There was an antique dresser with a golden gramophone sitting on top—a trophy I recognised. I walked up to the dresser and picked up the award. The plaque on the base read: “NIRVANA – WINNER – BEST ALTERNATIVE MUSICAL PERFORMANCE – MTV UNPLUGGED IN NEW YORK”. There it was. My hero’s only Grammy plonked on the dresser in my new bedroom. Holding it, I felt connected to Kurt, a man I’d come of age watching perform, adoring his records, replaying the MTV unplugged show over and over, mesmerised by the man, his guitar style, his mannerisms. I idolised him as a teenager copying his clothes, his attitude, his aura – and even his haircut.
I placed the gramophone back down on the dresser, careful not to let it slip. The house was 1920s LA Baroque; its pomp and unabashed Californication worked for the sun-bleached decadence of the city’s aristocracy. Next to my room was a sweeping two-level staircase lined with a blood-red carpet and soft yellow trim, leading down to the building’s main attraction, a large stone-walled ballroom. The original owner was an executive in the movie business; apparently, he built the house in 1922, the golden era of cinema. I could only imagine the parties thrown in that room. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, exquisitely dressed, dancing, twirling to the music. And Lucille Ball chain-smoking and sinking margaritas by the fireplace. Two large doors swung open into the ballroom, mirroring the dark oak of the home’s entrance. To the left were slender French doors that poured golden sunshine across the room.
Courtney would often host guests there. She had been a staple of the Los Angeles scene since the eighties; she knew everyone. “Everyone worth knowing,” she’d joke. Earlier that year, during my first summer at the house, we would sit around with visitors, chatting, drinking expensive wine that nobody could correctly pronounce. An array of voguish rockers and models, dressed in staple LA rock fashion. Silver skulls and snake jewellery, paired with leather pants and ripped T-shirts. A style, I believed, that had regressed from ‘Hair Metal’. Each guest competed for Courtney’s attention. I would sit observing these strange beasts at work—these “people” from Hollywoodland. In the far right corner of the room stood an elegant and glossy grand piano with all its teeth bared, ready and waiting for a maestro’s touch. Opposite that, next to the French doors, stood a sizable, carved wood Buddhist altar, a place to meditate and ease the monkey mind, although it was mainly used for texting and drinking protein shakes. The ballroom was the place to be. Huge, lavish and mystical.
In 1973, seven years before his murder on the streets of New York City, John Lennon rented this very house. He spent his infamous ‘lost weekend’ here with girlfriend May Pang and friend Harry Nilsson. During this period, the two musicians got booted out of the Troubadour (a music venue in Hollywood) for heckling the Smothers Brothers. The house had a history. Courtney later swore that this place was haunted, and she kindly told me this after I had arrived early and all alone that stormy November night.
My first summer in LA, in 2007, was spent inside a dark, windowless rehearsal space situated in the heart of Hollywood. Swing House was in the middle of Cahuenga Boulevard, tucked between two dirty old palm trees. They’d turned blackish from the LA traffic that whizzed past day after day. The building was bland and squarish, painted light grey, and stood behind a large red gate that would screech and buzz when opening. Inside, it was floor to ceiling with equipment cages. I was awestruck by the band names splattered all over the cases. Swing House was famous for its clientele: Weezer, Jimmy Eat World, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine. The list was long. And now, in the summer of 2007, Courtney Love and her new band including myself on rhythm guitar.
The band would rehearse all day without Courtney, working out the parts and practising the set, a mix of her new album and classic Hole songs. Courtney would bowl through the door anytime between 6pm and midnight. a Marlboro delicately hanging from the side of her mouth or between her fingers, letting ash pile up on the floor.
With Courtney at the front of the stage surrounded by candles and incense, the band would run through the set a couple of times. She would get out her blue and green leather-bound notebook and start scribbling changes or instructions. Then she’d direct us like a rock ‘n’ roll conductor. “Liam, follow my lead, ignore everyone else, you come with me,” she said. Without missing a beat, she would call out, “let’s GO!” And, we’d start up again. We were going to play shows in the USA and Europe, concerts were booked at The Roxy in Hollywood, Hiro Ballroom in New York City, Hotel De Caraman in Paris, and we’d finish the tour in London at Bush Hall. All the shows sold out. Courtney’s dedicated fans would line up outside the venues hours before the show, hoping for a glimpse of their idol.
The day we played New York, I left through a side door after soundcheck. It was sweltering, 90 degrees. I saw streams of fans lined up, completely circling the venue. We were 45 minutes late to the stage that night. Technical difficulties put a dampener on the start of the set, but certain songs can uplift a show that’s not going well. Courtney had an extensive back catalogue; hole Songs, ‘Doll Parts’, and ‘Celebrity Skin’ never failed to get the crowd and band excited. The most enthusiastic fans were able to sing every word back at us in perfect time. The drummer would count us in, and I would strike the first three chords, then Courtney would belt out: “OH MAKE ME OVER, I’M ALL I WANNA BE.” The room would explode with energy, and everyone would start leaping up and down.
After the final show in London, Courtney stuck around, living at the Covent Garden Hotel. I would visit her, taking the number 55 bus from Hackney to the West End, and she would tell tales from her career and of her time with Kurt. Hearing first-hand stories about him brought me closer to my hero; I felt his presence hanging over me throughout that period. Then the call from management came: “You’re heading back to LA to work on the record.” I was excited to get back and resume my position, which brings me back to having just arrived in Los Angeles, where I was going to spend the next two nights alone in Courtney Love’s Beverly Hills mansion.
As soon as the driver showed me to my room, he placed my bags by the door and said goodbye. “OK, Liam, have a good night, I’ll see you in a couple of days.” I felt uneasy as he closed the front doors behind him. The hardened oak clattered, sending an echo down the stairs and into the ballroom. I stood at the bedroom door and listened to the automatic gates grind open and then close, securing me inside the perimeter. I placed my carry-on bag on the bed and unpacked my belongings: a few books, guitar pedals, a couple of T-shirts, socks and jeans – the latter I put in the dresser drawers with Kurt’s Grammy sitting on top. The jet lag had me flagging, and my belly gurgled from lack of sleep and decent food. I walked across the hall to the kitchen to check if there was anything in the fridge. When the band were in town, the refrigerator would be full of milk, cookies and other unwholesome goodies. I opened the door to find a half-eaten tub of strawberry jam and a box of baking soda. I returned to my room disappointed and hungry. Half an hour after arriving, I was lying down looking out the window. It had started to get dark outside. Santa Ana had picked up her intensity, and the clouds appeared heavy with rain. The house was a good distance from any neighbouring buildings; rows of large jacaranda trees separated us from the other homes, their violet leaves fluttering in the wind. During my first summer there, I’d not seen or heard a neighbour or anyone else.
So, when I heard the piano playing from inside the house, my heart froze, and my body stiffened with fear. No band. No staff. No driver. Only me, alone in the house. It was made clear to me, by the management, that I’d be alone those first couple of nights. Yet, I could quite clearly hear the wooden hammers hitting the strings, the tinkling of keys, an eerie discordant song drifting up the stairs and through my open door. My mind was racing with the possibilities of who or what was down there. I lay there for a few seconds considering my options. Then, I sat up and twisted my body, gently placing my feet on the cold wooden floor, careful to not make a sound as I crept towards the cracked door, listening, fixated on the spectral melody.
“Hello?” – I tried to speak, but the words stuck in my throat. I was unable to communicate for the dread of a reply. I grabbed the door handle and pulled it towards me. As the door opened, the piano stopped dead. I stood still, paralysed, not knowing what was coming next. There was silence. Only the sound of the weather gathering force outside my window, adding a chilling backdrop to my situation. Had I been sensed? I had no idea, and I wasn’t going to stick around to find out. I retreated back into the room, found my shoes and crushed them onto my feet. I grabbed my jacket, phone and wallet, ready to bolt for the front door. But, I paused…Is this him? Could Kurt be reaching out? Sending me a message from the beyond? I was scared, and I was running away from him. Then, my panicked heart kickstarted the escape, pushing me towards the front door. I gripped the handle and flung it open. Without looking back, I ran out into the courtyard. The skies had opened, and rain had started to dollop on the brick paving in front of me. The security lights sprang to life and illuminated my path to freedom; I charged towards the side gate and out into the safety of the streetlights.
Taking a left turn, I started running down the hill, adrenaline propelling me onto Sunset Boulevard. The heavens had started their downpour, and my clothes were heavy. A blue and yellow Beverly Hills cab appeared in the distance. I stepped out into the road and waved my hands above my head. The cab pulled over and waited as I ran up to it. I tore the door open and jumped in the back. The man in the front looked at me in his rearview mirror, assessing the frantic mess he’d picked up. He had a slender face with a short beard and little round glasses perched upon his pointed nose. “OK, my friend, where to?” I hadn’t thought about where I wanted to go, alone in the city, with nobody to call. I had no friends outside the band and crew. I sat silent while I racked my brain; then, I remembered I’d seen an event on MySpace for a show at the Troubadour.
It was too early for the show to start, but I didn’t care. I needed to get far away from that house, and whatever was inside. Still panting and dripping wet, I told the driver, “I need to spend some time with musicians who ain’t dead.” He turned around in his seat and looked at me with a blank expression. Then replied in the soft dulcet tones of his SoCal drawl. “Sure thing, man, but I’m gonna need the address.”